Analytic Philosophy as a dead-end

Rhetoric is not only concerned with the how of what we say, but also with the what. That is, it is just as concerned with how we work out what to say, how we find and follow ideas or thoughts as with how we shape them to create a convincing speech or text.

So, I will begin with some reflections on my own ways of finding what to say.

I was trained in philosophy, analytic philosophy, a discipline that was obsessed with logical reasoning. The idea was that you would begin with one thought or proposition and then realise that that logically led to another one, and then on to a further one, and so on until you reached the final concluding thought or proposition. Each link in the chain of thoughts was a logical necessity, a deductive relation. There could be no jumps or gaps between the thoughts. Those trained in philosophy will immediately associate this description with three things: the practice of reasoning formulated by Descartes; the flow of ideas in philosophy articles or books; and the aggressive search by reading or listening philosophers for any jumps or gaps or ‘holes’ in the necessary flow of propositions.

This game of finding the hole in an argument was an intellectual game I threw myself into with relish when young. Searching for the weak link was like playing hide and seek seeking something well hidden before anyone else could find it and thereby winning and ending the game—which would then start all over again. I threw myself into this thrill of the hunt with such gusto that I did not even try to think about what the article or argument was about or what I thought about what the article was about: I just concentrated on finding that weak link. In this way, I managed to completely miss the point of philosophy as an academic discipline: instead of focusing on the what, on what the writer was trying to say, or on what I would say about it myself, I immersed myself in the completely destructive game of exposing fallacies and weak links in the reasoning, and paid no attention to what the argument was actually about.

And so my studies in philosophy eventually came to a dismal dead-end. As a game for a few years, it had proved amusing and engrossing, but it did not promise a positive or constructive life. In short, I lost the appetite for tearing down the arguments of others. Instead, I immersed myself in the upsurge of political and cultural energies of the 60-70s, energies that were forward looking and utopian—efforts to change the world and create a better one.

It was at this time that I came across the ideas and writings of Hannah Arendt and Ivan Illich—along with many, many other activist thinkers and writers, of course. However, it was these two who stuck, who I inevitably found my mind returning to in order to muse on things. What was interesting about my relationship to these two thinkers is that I did not read them with any ferocious attention to the logic of their argument. Instead, I would just dip into their writing at any point and read a couple of pages—and then ‘muse on it’ for a few days or weeks or even years. What I mean by ‘musing on it’ is that I would not try to construct a coherent straight line or chain of ideas (an argument), but instead would allow my mind to drift around what they had said placing it alongside other thoughts, ideas or situations I had come across or was wondering about.

I don’t think we have a good word for this sort of musing these days. It is a state similar in feel to daydreaming: you just let your mind drift from one thought to another until eventually it falls into puzzlement or fades into a gentle vagueness. The difference between musing and the kind of rational thinking I had been trained into by analytic philosophy was huge. Musing is a matter of letting your mind drift, of letting go, of letting ideas go where they wish, whereas the style of thinking I had learnt in philosophy was a matter of being in control of each thought, of formulating it with clarity, and then deducing the next proposition from it—a thinking in which the thinker is in total and vigilant control.

This change in approach to thinking, to finding what I wanted to say, had radical implications for my intellectual life. I decided to abandon the academic field of philosophy. On the one hand, my earlier style of thinking did not produce constructive ideas, it just tore down the ideas of others. But this new style of thinking meant leaving my thinking to fate, to chance: I had no control over when ideas or thoughts would appear; I just had to wait and trust that they would come eventually.

Given my commitment to this new style of thinking, this new approach to what ancient rhetoric calls inventio, the work of find ideas and thoughts to explore and formulate, I felt that I would not be able to perform within the academic system where you have to be able to think and lecture on order as it were. You were not allowed to turn up to a lecture and say to students: Sorry, the muse did not visit me this week. I have no new thoughts or ideas. I have nothing worth saying.

I also found that it was in confronting the exigencies, the demands of creating educational tasks for children and adults struggling with schooling that my mind seemed to spark up. It was in musing over these specific concrete practical contexts that my mind would start racing through whole cascades of ideas. Especially if lying awake in the middle of the night, I could burn through ideas and thoughts with such speed and intensity, it would take years and years of laborious writing to try to pin them down into communicative language.

This contingent style of thinking and reading in which I did not try to read, think or write in a strict logically organised chains allowed new habits of reading and writing to form. Thus, my reading became wider but shallower: I read voraciously across many disciplines but by dipping in and out – never reading a book right through closely or analytically; never formulating what I thought about it or how I would criticise it. I treated books as provocations for my own musing, a musing that usually bubbled up a few days or weeks after a reading. The down-side of this way of reading was that I could never ‘pin’ any author or book down: I could never get ‘an angle’ or ‘bead’ on it. Instead of mastering the book and its ideas, and dialectically digesting it to clarify and enlarge my own view, I would leave the book just sitting there unfinished and unresolved. It would thus become a book with thoughts that I intended to revisit some time, perhaps over and over—a book I was just as keen to not-read and only muse on, as I was to read and nail down exactly what it was saying.

So, unfinished books became interlocutors I would revisit for short conversations stretching out over decades. The more stimulating the idea in a book or author, the less often I would read them: as long as their ideas kept popping into my mind without any bidding on my part I did not need to revisit them. It would be when I noticed that I had not thought about Hannah Arendt’s concept of action for a few months that I might open one of her books and skim through a couple of pages, before setting the book down, and trusting that what I had just read would percolate through my mind and bubble to the surface some time over the next days or weeks.

Clearly, this seems a very ‘random way’ of going about reading and thinking: it seems to lack all discipline and structure. True, it is not a style of reading and thinking designed to churn out academic papers or logically compelling public discourse. And yet! And yet! It did mean that in fact I never gave up philosophy or thinking: instead, released from the treadmill of academic life or public life, I was able to gradually extend my reading and thinking into other domain, most notably, In addition to Arendt and Illich Stanley Cavell’s riffing on Wittgenstein musings around language and life; Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics; the rich tradition of ancient & new rhetoric; Halliday’s systemic functional linguistics; and toe-dip into continental philosophers such as Derrida and Heidegger, as well as social theorist such as Basil Bernstein, Bourdieu, Schatzki and Foucault. These are all thinkers I refuse to read in any systematic or serious way. If I did succeed in mastering them, I would certainly lose interest in them; they would have lost their (cattle)prodding power to jolt my subterranean thinking processes into action.

You can see that this approach has meant I have ended up breached the boundaries between disciplines and fields, wandering it would seem randomly across different fields and bodies of intellectual work. Yet, oddly and even though I cannot formulate it in any ‘clear and distinct’ manner a la Descartes, I strongly feel that there is an affinity and deep coherence between these different thinkers and their ideas. Although dipping into thinkers and their books in short bursts may seem chaotic, in fact what I have found is that one finds that one is haunted by a small number of ideas, conundrums that your mind returns to over and over, along with a small number of thinkers who return to mind over and over. You find yourself, in Derrida’s terms, haunted by these spectral ideas and thinkers. They are not consciously or strategically selected or chosen; nor are they career-advancing. It is as if they chose you; or something deep in yourself somehow recognised an ineffable affinity with them. They become who you think with, against, around, behind. Thinking is an unending back and forth ideas and thoughts woven around conundrums: much of the time it is unclear who is thinking them or me. The ideas seem to have their own momentum.

But now the time of reckoning approaches. In retirement and with mortality bearing down on me, I am trying to say to myself: Enough of musing; now is the time to try to formulate these musings, these thinkers and thoughts into coherent language and writing.

Faced with the risk of returning to my earlier negative and critical habits of reading and thinking, I cling to two thoughts: one, Arendt herself did not read or think in a Cartesian line of logically linked ideas—she saw herself as diving for rare pearls scattered in books; second, the rhetorical tradition had for centuries relied on a topical approach to finding ideas and laying them out in speech or writing before Descartes created his practice of logically chaining transparent propositions into unassailable lines of argument. I am comforted knowing of Arendt’s manner of finding and formulating ideas; and learning of the use of topoi by traditional rhetoric.


About Rob McCormack
I am a retired second chance educator living in Melbourne, Australia. Theory I am interested in includes: Rhetoric, both ancient and contemporary; Post-structural discourse theory, Laclau; Halliday's systemic functional linguistic theory; Hermeneutics (esp. Gadamer); philosophy, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida; 'practice theory' in social theory such as Schatzki, Bourdieu; political theory, such as Arendt, Laclau, Tully ; pedagogic theory and philosophy such as Biesta, didaktik. Praxis I am interested in include: Adult education and adult literacy; second chance education; academic discourse and writing; langauge and learning; Indigenous education.

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